True threat

Last updated

A true threat is a threatening communication that can be prosecuted under the law. It is distinct from a threat that is made in jest. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that true threats are not protected under the U.S. Constitution based on three justifications: preventing fear, preventing the disruption that follows from that fear, and diminishing the likelihood that the threatened violence will occur. [1] There is some concern that even satirical speech could be regarded as a "true threat" due to concern over terrorism. [2]

The true threat doctrine was established in the 1969 Supreme Court case Watts v. United States . [3] In that case, an eighteen-year-old male was convicted in a Washington, D.C. District Court for violating a statute prohibiting persons from knowingly and willfully making threats to harm or kill the President of the United States. [3] The conviction was based on a statement made by Watts, in which he said, "[i]f they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J." [3] Watts appealed, leading to the Supreme Court finding the statute constitutional on its face, but reversing the conviction of Watts.

In reviewing the lower court's analysis of the case, the Court noted that "a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech." [3] The Court recognized that "uninhibited, robust, and wideopen" political debate can at times be characterized by "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." In light of the context of Watts' statement - and the laughter that it received from the crowd - the Court found that it was more "a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President" than a "true threat." [3] In so holding, the Court established that there is a "true threat" exception to protected speech, but also that the statement must be viewed in its context and distinguished from protected hyperbole. The opinion, however, stopped short of defining precisely what constituted a "true threat." [3]

See also

Related Research Articles

Clear and present danger Free speech doctrine in US Constitutional law

Clear and present danger was a doctrine adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States to determine under what circumstances limits can be placed on First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, or assembly. The test was replaced in 1969 with Brandenburg v. Ohio's "imminent lawless action" test.

Fighting words are written or spoken words intended to incite hatred or violence from their target. Specific definitions, freedoms, and limitations of fighting words vary by jurisdiction. The term fighting words is also used in a general sense of words that when uttered tend to create a verbal or physical confrontation by their mere usage.

R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), is a case of the United States Supreme Court in which the Supreme Court unanimously struck down St. Paul's Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance and reversed the conviction of a teenager, referred to in court documents only as R.A.V., for burning a cross on the lawn of an African-American family for violating the First Amendment's protections for freedom of speech.

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court interpreting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court held that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action". Specifically, the Court struck down Ohio's criminal syndicalism statute, because that statute broadly prohibited the mere advocacy of violence. In the process, Whitney v. California (1927) was explicitly overruled, and doubt was cast on Schenck v. United States (1919), Abrams v. United States (1919), Gitlow v. New York (1925), and Dennis v. United States (1951).

Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court holding that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had extended the First Amendment's provisions protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press to apply to the governments of U.S. states. Along with Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. City of Chicago (1897), it was one of the first major cases involving the incorporation of the Bill of Rights. It was also one of a series of Supreme Court cases that defined the scope of the First Amendment's protection of free speech and established the standard to which a state or the federal government would be held when it criminalized speech or writing.

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978), is a U.S. constitutional law case which defined the free speech right of corporations for the first time. The United States Supreme Court held that corporations have a First Amendment right to make contributions to ballot initiative campaigns. The ruling came in response to a Massachusetts law that prohibited corporate donations in ballot initiatives unless the corporation's interests were directly involved.

Sedition and seditious libel were criminal offences under English common law, and are still criminal offences in Canada. Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order: if the statement is in writing or some other permanent form it is seditious libel. Libel denotes a printed form of communication such as writing or drawing.

Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), is a First Amendment case decided in the Supreme Court of the United States. Three defendants were convicted in two separate cases of violating a Virginia statute against cross burning. In this case, the Court struck down that statute to the extent that it considered cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate. Such a provision, the Court argued, blurs the distinction between proscribable "threats of intimidation" and the Ku Klux Klan's protected "messages of shared ideology." However, cross-burning can be a criminal offense if the intent to intimidate is proven. It was argued by former Solicitor General of Virginia, William Hurd.

De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause applies freedom of assembly against the states. The Court found that Dirk De Jonge had the right to speak at a peaceful public meeting held by the Communist Party, even though the party generally advocated an industrial or political change in revolution. However, in the 1950s with the fear of communism on the rise, the Court ruled in Dennis v. United States (1951) that Eugene Dennis, who was the leader of the Communist Party, violated the Smith Act by advocating the forcible overthrow of the United States government.

Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007), is a United States Supreme Court case where the Court held, 5–4, that the First Amendment does not prevent educators from suppressing student speech that is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use at or across the street from a school-supervised event. In 2002, Juneau-Douglas High School principal Deborah Morse suspended Joseph Frederick after he displayed a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" [sic] across the street from the school during the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay. Frederick sued, claiming his constitutional rights to free speech were violated. His suit was dismissed by the federal district court, but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the ruling, concluding that Frederick's speech rights were violated. The case then went on to the Supreme Court.

Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that a "breach of peace" ordinance of the City of Chicago that banned speech which "stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance" was unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


A threat is a communicated intent to inflict harm or loss on another person. Intimidation is widely observed in animal behavior chiefly in order to avoid the unnecessary physical violence that can lead to physical damage or the death of both conflicting parties. A threat is considered an act of coercion.

A terroristic threat is a threat to commit a crime of violence or a threat to cause bodily injury to another person and terrorization as the result of the proscribed conduct. Several U.S. states have enacted statutes which impose criminal liability for "terroristic threatening" or "making a terroristic threat."

Threatening the president of the United States is a federal felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871. It consists of knowingly and willfully mailing or otherwise making "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the president of the United States". The law also covers presidential candidates and former presidents. The United States Secret Service investigates suspected violations of this law and monitors those who have a history of threatening the president. Threatening the president is considered a political offense. Immigrants who commit this crime can be deported.

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995), is a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that an Ohio statute prohibiting anonymous campaign literature is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the freedom of speech. In a 7–2 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court found that the First Amendment protects the decision of an author to remain anonymous.

United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court struck down a portion of the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that criminalized false statements about having a military medal. The law had been passed as an effort to stem instances where people falsely claimed to have earned the medal in an attempt to protect the valor of legitimate recipients. While a 6–3 majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the law was unconstitutional under the First Amendment's free speech protections, it could not agree on a single rationale. Four justices concluded that a statement's falsity is not enough, by itself, to exclude speech from First Amendment protection. Another two justices concluded that while false statements were entitled to some protection, the Stolen Valor Act was invalid because it could have achieved its objectives in less restrictive ways.

United States free speech exceptions Categories of free speech not protected by the First Amendment

Exceptions to free speech in the United States refers to categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. Constitution protects free speech while allowing for limitations on certain categories of speech.

In United States constitutional law, false statements of fact are statements of fact that are false. Such statements are not always protected by the First Amendment. This is usually due to laws against defamation, that is making statements that harm the reputation of another. In those cases, freedom of speech comes into conflict with the right to privacy. Because it is almost impossible for someone to be absolutely sure that what they say is true, a party who makes a false claim isn't always liable. Whether such speech is protected depends on the situation. The standards of such protection have evolved over time from a body of Supreme Court rulings.

Criminal syndicalism has been defined as a doctrine of criminal acts for political, industrial, and social change. These criminal acts include advocation of crime, sabotage, violence, and other unlawful methods of terrorism. Criminal syndicalism laws were enacted to oppose economic radicalism.

Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. ___ (2015), was a United States Supreme Court case concerning whether conviction of threatening another person over interstate lines requires proof of subjective intent to threaten or whether it is enough to show that a "reasonable person" would regard the statement as threatening. In controversy were the purported threats of violent rap lyrics written by Anthony Douglas Elonis and posted to Facebook under a pseudonym. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. It was the first time the Court has heard a case considering true threats and the limits of speech on social media.


  1. Toward an Improved True Threat Doctrine for Student Speakers; Stanner, Andrew P., 81, N.Y.U. L. Rev., 2006, p. 385
  2. Gilbert, Lauren (2003–2004), Mocking George: Political Satire as True Threat in the Age of Global Terrorism, 58, U. Miami L. Rev., p. 843
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Is the True Threats Doctrine Threatening the First Amendment? Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists Signals the Need To Remedy an Inadequate Doctrine; Weiss, Lori, 72, Fordham L. Rev., 2004, p. 1283